The meetings industry spent $120 billion on professional speakers in 1999, according to The National Speakers Association. Why? Because quality speakers can raise the level of a meeting. They can make connections, offer perspective, motivate, and amuse. They can bring an audience to its feet. The good ones do extensive work with companies before they step into the spotlight so that they know their audience, they know the meeting's goals, and they know what company executives want their employees feeling and thinking when the speaker leaves the stage.

But how do you find the good ones? To begin, says David Lavin, president of The Lavin Agency, a Toronto- and Boston-based speakers bureau, “Don't outsource the intellectual content of your meeting.” Too many managers leave the choice of speakers to an independent planner or others who don't have an insider's understanding of the goals of the meeting and the audience, he says. “Technology audiences are pretty bright and pretty charged up. A lot of the typical motivational speakers aren't appropriate.”

But even event managers who take control of their meeting's message can trip on the way to the podium. Here are Lavin's pet peeves:

  1. Putting names before goals. Too often clients begin searching for a speaker with specific names in mind. “The last thing to think about is the speaker,” says Lavin. “Start by knowing what your issues are. What do you want the audience to walk out the door thinking and feeling?”

  2. Confusing your taste for the audience's. You and your CEO might think that a speaker is terrific, but will the presentation work for your group of twenty-something engineers? Know your audiences and respect the differences among them.

  3. Not communicating expectations. Most speakers are willing to customize their presentations, and some are quite adept at it, but it means work for the event planner. You need to outline the issues for the meeting, communicate them to the speaker, and be available for questions. When the speaker hands in a presentation outline, read it! This is one of the key ways to ensure that what you expect is what you'll get.

  4. Relying on videos. “Videos are the least trustworthy decision-making tool,” says Lavin. “I've seen lousy videos of great speakers,” and vice versa. Lavin suggests that event planners go to see the speaker in person before booking; if that's not possible, “Find someone whose taste is consistent with yours.” Additionally, check at least three recent references. (See box at right.)

Speaker Searches on the Web

Search, preview, select — and never leave your desk

Using the Web for speaker searches can save you lots of time and phone calls. Find a speakers bureau Web site with a user-friendly search engine, and you can quickly come up with a list of speakers who match your meeting theme, topic, and budget. You can even search for speakers who live close to your meeting site or who are already booked near your site around your meeting dates.

If you know exactly who you want, you can visit that speaker's Web site. Either way, look for the following content:

  • full-length biographies

  • real or streaming audio or video clips

  • a schedule of live preview opportunities

  • pre-program questionnaires

  • program titles

  • audiovisual requirements

  • testimonials

  • calender of availability

  • contact information

Once you have a short list of potential speakers, continue your online pursuit by e-mailing the bureau or speaker's office to request full-length demo tapes. (Full-length audio and video tapes are not yet readily available online because of bandwidth and storage complexities.) You may also request a telephone call with one or more bureau reps, speaker reps, or speakers themselves to talk about specific issues.

Once you have selected a speaker, continue your virtual quest by doing the booking online. Many sites will post or e-mail instructions on how to make an offer to a speaker. Once the offer is accepted, you will be asked to fill in a series of booking questions so that a digital contract and invoice can be e-mailed to you, along with the promotional materials you will need to publicize your speaker in brochures and to introduce him or her properly.

You may still make some calls, but the Internet can do a lot of your work for you.

Source: Ruth Levine, Speak Inc. Speakers Bureau,

Where to Look

Here's a sampling of online speaker resources. For a comprehensive agency listing, visit the International Association of Speakers Bureaus at

Check Those References

Speaker references are critical, but it's not enough to call a former client and ask, “Was he any good?” You need to know the goals for your program and to ask specific questions about the speaker's ability to meet those goals. For example, “Can he talk about technological trends?” should get a different answer from “Can he talk to CEOs about technological trends?” or “Can he talk to chip designers about technology trends?” Here are some other questions to ask references; these will help you determine if a speaker will be a good fit for your group:

  • Was the talk customized? Were the things you discussed about your organization integrated into the talk?

  • Was the speaker available for questions, and how well did he or she handle them?

  • How up-to-date was the speaker's information?

  • Were there logistical problems?

  • Was the speaker difficult to work with? Did he or she have any special requirements that were not communicated up front?

Source: David Lavin, president of The Lavin Agency, a speakers agency with offices in Boston, Toronto, and Vancouver. Contact him at (800) 265-4870, ext. 279, or visit

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When I put a hold on a speaker, am I assured of getting that speaker for my event?

A: Speaker holds allow you the flexibility to make your decision without the obligation of signing a contract or paying a deposit. Unlike contracted dates, holds are not binding until a speaker accepts your offer and you enter into a contract. For protection against holds that fall through, speakers typically accept up to five holds for the same date, and the holds are given priority based on the order in which they are received. First holds are given the first right of refusal (24 hours from the next business day) when a second hold makes a firm offer for the same date. A third hold on the same date would automatically lose the date if the speaker accepts an offer from his first or second hold. Likewise, if a third hold makes a firm offer, then the first hold is given the first 24-hour right of refusal, and if the first hold declines, then the second hold is given the next 24-hour first right of refusal. The best way to book a speaker who has multiple holds ahead of you is to make your decision ASAP.

Source: Ruth Levine at Speak Inc. Speakers Bureau,

Hot on the Circuit

Richard Thieme

Topics: Technospirituality; life on the edge; the human dimensions of technology, work, and our personal lives.

Recent Clients: DefCon, Black Hat Briefings, Ajilon, Omni-Tech, System Planning Corp. Thieme is the only speaker to ever receive a standing ovation at DefCon.

Note: You can hear DefCon and Black Hat speeches from his Web site, www.thieme, in RealAudio and MP3 formats.

Fee: $7,000

Based: Milwaukee, Wis.

Contact: (414) 351-2321,

William C. Taylor

co-founder and editor of Fast Company magazine

Topics: How does a company compete? How does a company get people to work together? What is success?

Recent Clients: IBM Global Services, Cognos Inc., Bell Mobility

Note: The Lavin Agency also represents four other Fast Company staffers

Fee: NA

Based: Boston

Contact: The Lavin Agency, (800) 265-4870, www.thelavin

David and Tom Gardner

authors of The Motley Fool Investment Guide, founders of, hosts of The Motley Fool Radio Show

Topics: personal finance, investing, and how technology is changing Wall Street

Recent Clients: Technical Association of Georgia

Note: The Gardners can be booked separately or together.

Fee: Fees vary but start around $18,500 plus first-class expenses.

Based: Alexandria, Va.

Contact: Washington Speakers Bureau, (703) 684-0555,

Guy Kawasaki

CEO of, a venture capital firm for tech startups

Topics: creating and marketing revolutionary products and services; driving competitors crazy; getting the organizations value systems in tune to support change

Recent Clients: During the past few months, Kawasaki has spoken to more than 9,000 IBM managers, nationally and internationally.

Note: Kawasaki offers a “double-or-nothing” option in his speaker contract: No standing ovation, no fee. Standing ovation, double the fee.

Fee: averages $50,000, plus expenses

Based: Palo Alto, Calif.

Contact: Cosby Speakers Bureau, (703) 734-2344,

Must-Read for the Nonprofessional Speaker: Your CEO

Some CEOs are naturals on stage. Most aren't.

The Coleman Center, a Manhattan meeting venue, has published a brief, useful guide, “Capture and Captivate Your Audience,” designed to improve the skill of the occasional speaker. The guide covers style, content, and visual aids. Among the tips:

  • Change your tone of voice throughout your talk. Emphasize certain passages by raising or lowering your voice. Pause occasionally. Look up at your audience — gaze directly at individual audience members occasionally.

  • Put emotion into your speaking style. Consider voice lessons or acting lessons.

  • A business rises or falls depending on the quality and service delivered to its customers. Your customers are the audience you're addressing. Serve them well.

For a free copy of the guide, contact The Coleman Center at (212) 541-4600, or send an e-mail to

Six Ways to Cut Speaker Expenses

  1. Ask your speaker to fly coach before you make a firm offer for the date. Your speaker will be more willing to negotiate at this time than after a contract is submitted.

  2. Try to piggyback with another group that has your speaker booked in the same meeting city.

  3. Book a speaker who is based in your meeting destination.

  4. Propose an all-inclusive fee prior to going to contract with your speaker so that you have a predetermined cap on expenses.

  5. If your speaker will not agree to an all-inclusive fee, offer a reasonable per diem to cover everything in addition to airfare and hotel room. Typically a per diem will cover meals, tips, and ground transfers.

  6. Clearly state in your contract exactly what expenses you will cover so that there is no post-conference confusion over miscellaneous expenses.

Source: Ruth Levine at Speak Inc. Speakers Bureau,